When we enter a space that has been designated for traditional performance, a concert hall or theatre, a room with a stage, we enter into an unwritten contract that determines how we behave as an audience. There may be announcements asking us to switch off mobile phones – this is always communicated clearly in a cinema environment – but often there is not. We are expected to be attentive listeners, quiet observers, dark-room dwellers observing the action, but this is not always overtly communicated to us. It is an expectation acknowledged through the behaviour of the majority. It is demonstrated by the layout of space itself, by the dimming of the lights, by the quiet hush that quickly sweeps the room, but it is not always announced.
A site such as the Barbican is used for multi-disciplinary performances but no matter what you are watching, the understanding is that you will be a respectful observer. At a recent concert, this behavioural contract was flouted by the woman sitting directly in front of me. She had her mobile phone out repeatedly during the concert, casually scrolling through Facebook, even pausing to take a selfie as the lights dimmed for the start of the second half. This woman wasn’t talking, she was listening and applauding politely when everyone else did. I was enraged by the light from her phone and by her inability to switch off from her digital device for 5 minutes to enjoy the performance by the Academy of Ancient Music.
After the concert, I began to question my own irritation at the woman and her mobile phone. I recalled that there had been no announcement before the concert that devices should be switched off. I tried to think of a reasonable explanation as to why she might think this was acceptable. Perhaps she wasn’t aware of the expectation that one should have a phone switched off during a concert. Perhaps she hadn’t twigged that the gradiated auditorium seating layout meant that the people sitting behind could fully see the illuminated screen of her phone. I wanted to lean forward and tap her on the shoulder, silently gesturing her to put her phone away, but I didn’t. Inhibited by my own social anxiety, and the withering look of my boyfriend who would have been mortified if I had made a scene, I instead fumed internally, occasionally venting my frustration with a shake of the head.
The disruption reminded me of a performance I had been ushering several years ago while I was a student, at an off-west end theatre in east London. The play was a two-hander consisting almost entirely of monologues. Unbeknownst to me, an audience member in the middle of the balcony was using an iPad throughout the performance, their face illuminated by the blue light of the screen. Midway through the performance, the lead actor who was in the middle of a ten-minute monologue suddenly stopped speaking. Breaking character, he looked straight up at the balcony and angrily demanded, “Why are you using your iPad? You’ve had it out for the whole performance and it’s really distracting”. My stomach dropped. The worst had happened. I had failed to notice the distraction this audience member was causing and the actor had taken things in to his own hands, ruining the performance. I watched in disbelief as the audience member calmly replied, “I’m making notes”. The actor was furious. “Make notes in a notebook. You can’t have an iPad out during a play. I’m not continuing until you put it away”.
I was amazed that someone would have the gumption to use a device during a play to begin with, let alone to defend themselves to an actor onstage who had sabotaged his own performance to get your attention and ask you to stop. I imagine I would be incredibly embarrassed, mumble a quiet apology and put the iPad away in my bag. I would then have spent the next several weeks obsessing over the incident. However, this audience member was defiant and protective over their right to make notes, if they wished, using whatever means was easiest for them.
Looking back on it now, I’m not sure whose behaviour was worse, the audience member or the actor. The actor’s job was to perform his part with conviction. The iPad light may have been distracting, but most professionals would ignore it, continue with their performance and rant about it in the pub afterwards. After all, there were bright stage lights shining directly in his face, illuminating him; surely he could have ignored the smaller blue light from the balcony. Perhaps the theatre needed to be more explicit in their notice that not only mobile phones but all electronic devices must be switched off during the performance. I felt certain that if questioned after the show, this person would have defended themselves with “I wasn’t told I couldn’t have it out”.
The refusal to conform to the expected audience behaviours is a fascinating kind of rebellion. It is not criminal; it is irritating. It is not violent; it is disruptive. And it is only through these kind of incidents that I have really become aware of the rigid conventions that govern an audience’s behaviour. I have realised that my attitude to conventional performance is conservative; people should behave as expected, they should conform, they should not question or disrupt the order. One thing is certain, those who are delivering the performance must be immune to these kind of minor disruptions. Perhaps it should be down to other audience members to police them. In which case, I have always failed at my job.